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Best of the Best 2005: Personal Aircraft

Mary Grady

A turbocharged update of the innovative Lancair 300, which combined sleek high-tech design with robust performance when it was introduced six years ago, the Lancair Columbia 400 is the fastest certified piston-powered airplane available. At 25,000 feet, the 400 zips along at an amazing 270 mph, fast enough for Lancair vice president Tom Bowen to have flown 1,557 miles nonstop from the company’s factory in Bend, Ore., to Fort Worth, Texas, in less than six and a half hours. “This was a very low-stress flight,” says Bowen. “It was comfortable all the way.”

Central to the pilot’s comfort are the cockpit’s spacious configuration, its wide windows that provide exceptional visibility, and its supportive seats. Instead of using a traditional yoke, the pilot controls the airplane with a joystick that is set off to the side, leaving him an unimpeded view of the instrument panel. The cockpit is also equipped with electronic climate control and pneumatic door seals that lock out much of the exterior wind noise.

But such conveniences would be worthless without performance. With a solid purr, the powerful engine, a dual turbocharged 6-cylinder Continental TSIO-550-N1B with 310 hp, effortlessly pulls the airplane up to cruising altitude at 1,300 feet per minute. The state-of-the-art instrument panel features two display screens that provide a pilot with all of the information he needs, from fuel flow to airspeed to a map of the airport. Indeed, equipped with an autopilot, traffic alert system, real-time weather, and electronic deicers for the wings, the 400 nearly renders the human pilot redundant.

Nevertheless, the pilot will appreciate the experience of flying the plane, which, when all options are included, is priced at $589,000. “It has that incredible speed, but it’s also the safest and sweetest airplane flying when you’re going slow, for traffic patterns and landing,” says Lancair CEO Bing Lantis. The pushrod controls feel strong and responsive, and the airplane handles well in all corners of the flight envelope.

Paul Duckett, the owner of a truck dealership in Missouri, took delivery on the first 400 in May 2004. He had placed a deposit with Lancair more than six years before, after flying the Columbia 300, but then decided to hold out for the turbocharged version. “The wait was well worth it,” says Duckett. “It’s all cutting-edge technology and top-notch design. I feel it’s the best product out there. I always look forward to flying it.”

 

Lancair, 541.318.1144, www.flycolumbia.com

Freedom Flier

When the Liberty XL2 entered the market last year, it was the first piston airplane to be factory-built with Full Authority Digital Engine Control, which makes engine management easier and more efficient. With FADEC, instead of the pilot’s having to tinker with three separate controls that manage fuel flow, primer, and carburetor heat—which need to be adjusted with changes in altitude or power settings—the engine’s computer tends to these adjustments. The two-seat XL2 offers ample room for two up front, a generous 100-pound baggage capacity, a 575-mile range, and more efficient operation than a four-seater.
 
With all of the options, including pearly paint and deluxe Garmin avionics (a satellite navigation system and moving color maps for easy navigation even in bad weather), the XL2 is priced at about $175,000.

 

Liberty Aerospace, 800.759.5953, www.libertyaircraft.com

Fly Pod

While it does represent a means of getting from here to there, flying also can be an end in itself. Such is certainly the case when piloting a trike, essentially a propeller-equipped go-kart that is suspended from a hang-glider wing. No license is required, but the flying season can be short. However, the Seagull Aerosports Escape Pod, a $15,000 trike with a fully enclosed, heated cockpit, enables pilots to fly year-round. (The canopy can be removed in warm weather for open-air flights.) “Winter flying, when the air is smooth and crystal-clear, is great,” says Michael Riggs, owner of the Minnesota company that builds the Pod. Find an updraft when flying the Pod, which has retractable landing gear to reduce drag, and you can turn off the engine and soar in silence. 

Seagull Aerosports, 952.473.1480, www.fly-seagull.com

Round of Applause

The latest offering from the Mooney Airplane Co., which has been building aircraft for more than 50 years, the Mooney Ovation2 GX features the company’s distinctive backward tail design and, more significant, the latest in multifunction computer displays for the instrument panel. More than just a new set of instruments, the Garmin G1000 integrated cockpit creates an entirely new operating system for the pilot that is easier to use and safer than previous systems. It provides true flight-management capabilities, similar to what a corporate jet would have on board. A new, superthin, two-blade McCauley propeller, combined with a 280 hp TCM IO-550-G engine, enables the Ovation2 GX to reach speeds of about 220 mph, which is faster than any airplane in its class (single engine, normally aspirated, piston powered). Prices start at $418,000.

Mooney Airplane Co., 800.456.3033, www.mooney.com

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